Business Day, May 8, 2000
South Africa Court To Decide Whether Schools Should Spare Rod
By Ernest Mabuza
Johannesburg - The issue of corporal punishment in schools surfaced again last week after a body representing 196 private schools took the state to the Constitutional Court over its ban of the practice.
Christian Education SA argues that section 10 of the Schools Act of 1996 which made the administration of corporal punishment a criminal offence infringes on the freedom of religion.
It said independent schools had been stripped of their right to participate in a cultural life of their choice. They cited verses from the Bible which they claimed condoned the use of corporal punishment to discipline children.
They said corporal correction helped form a young person's character.
Christian Education SA first brought its case in 1998, but Judge Pius Langa ruled that it was not proper for the case to go directly to the highest court in the land without making its way up the judicial hierarchy.
Education Minister Kader Asmal said last week that it was a criminal offence to give children a beating in schools "whether they be private or public".
He encouraged teachers and parents whose children attended schools where the practice was still the norm to report this to state officials.
One of the issues the court has been asked to decide is whether corporal punishment constitutes child abuse or degradation practices expressly forbidden by the Bill of Rights.
However, education researcher Salim Vally said Christian Education SA had a particular interpretation of God.
"Those religious people see the deity as someone vengeful, vindictive and violent while other Christians see him as caring and rehabilitative," said Vally, from the Wits University's education policy unit.
"These campaigners confuse violence with discipline and fear with respect. They believe you cannot achieve discipline without violence," Vally said.
He said researchers across the world agreed that corporal punishment was harmful and did not make children better.
"Corporal punishment has been found to increase cases of vandalism, truancy and drop-out rates, and it increases antisocial aggression.
"Learners who endure corporal punishment emulate the ability to bully by intimidating younger learners."
Vally said without training on alternatives to corporal punishment and the instilling of self-discipline, teachers would continue the traditional and quick-fix solutions of fear and pain to resolve problems.
He said teacher unions, such as the SA Democratic Teachers' Union and the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of SA, opposed corporal punishment, but that teachers believed the abolition of the practice added to their loss of authority.
He cited a case of a seven-year-old girl from KwaZulu-Natal who was beaten so brutally that a tendon was severed and a bone below her elbow fractured. Her crime was that she could not spell English words translated from Zulu.
Vally said there were numerous ways in which teachers could enforce discipline, and he was working on guidelines for alternatives to corporal punishment that would later be handed over to the education department.
The New National Party (NNP) said the practice should be allowed if administered in a responsible manner.
"It should be a choice of local communities whether they want it or not," NNP education spokesman Andre Gaum said.
Gaum said if a parent objected to his child being punished, he should inform the school principal and other forms of punishment should be applied.
The Democratic Party supports the ban. "We stand by this principle, and we await with interest to see what the finding of the Constitutional Court will be, but the outcome will not affect our stand in opposing corporal punishment in schools," DP spokesman Mike Ellis said.
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